You are here

Berlin Brief

Leading the Future of Learning

December 11, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an event dedicated to ‘The Talent Revolution’ and organized by the Google Digital Academy. Most of the other speakers and attendees were from industry and shared insights and exciting practices of talent recruitment, development, and retention. They highlighted some of the extraordinary opportunities currently being pursued by organizations armed with new digital tools and resources. My remarks sought to offer historical, social and institutional context for – and pose a few fundamental questions around – these far-reaching changes.

To begin, I summarized what have been twin foundational mindsets and models of contemporary formal education. One, familiar to many from the work of Sir Ken Robinson and with special focus on children’s learning, is the school organized in the interests and image of the Industrial Revolution and the culture of the Enlightenment. The 'factory' model yields educated individuals as its consistent 'products' prepared to function in society and the economy. The system of lockstep progression by 'grades', standardized tests or other requirements to assess the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and the common certification and credentialing to mark success are hallmarks of this system.

The other foundational model, perhaps more recognizable in higher education and professional training, follows from a 'monastic' tradition. This longstanding culture, dating to medieval European monastery and cathedral schools and the emergence of early universities, has supported training for specific professions, originally law, medicine, and Church administration. The prevailing image is of devotees dedicating themselves to learning a standardized curriculum on specific subjects (often to the exclusion of others) and of professional teachers organized to provide instruction. Education here takes place in self-regulating, sometimes isolated communities that prepare and certify individuals to return to society and act on their learning. Together, these models have shaped not only how we institutionalize teaching and learning but also approach individual education and talent development. 

Among today’s challenges to these models, many of them brought by or associated with digital technologies, we might identify four tendencies. The first is the unbundling of education. As Clayton Christensen and others have argued, this entails a shift from the fixed timing and courses of study to more competency-based approaches. Second is personalization. Technology and other resources now allow learning to be optimized (self-organized and dynamic) to cater to the distinctive learning, styles, pace, and interests and experiences of individuals.

Third is the emergent reality of continuous education. Transcending time, place, and the traditional 'bundles' of requirements needed to earn degrees or other credentials, future learning should enable ongoing career re-casting and more meaningful personal development. Fourth is a creativity orientation. While in part a reaction to the rationalizing imperatives of science and engineering, the emphasis on creativity and innovation in schools and industry alike represents an abiding commitment to integrate arts and humanity-minded learning with more technical and critical thinking skills.

These are exciting, provocative and potentially far-reaching challenges. For individuals and society, new educational tools and resources hold the promise of empowering individuals to develop a fuller array of competencies, skills and knowledge and of unleashing their creative potential. Indeed, many of the changes underway call to mind the evocative words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats that, "Education is not about filling a bucket but lighting a fire". Yet as we catalog and celebrate having more and more ways to light more fires, we should pause over a basic question: Toward what shared purpose(s) are we developing and choosing to embrace new ways to learn?

Put differently, amidst the proliferation of opportunities to acquire and develop skills and knowledge and to enable an increased role for individuals in choosing which of those opportunities to pursue, what will guide our choices? Besides situational needs, individual judgment, or organizational priorities, we might fairly ask what should connect the choices and ultimately the development of individuals. Some forward-looking learning institutions have identified the values overarching the learning they enable, often shifting emphasis from acquiring knowledge to ways of thinking and doing. First-year studies in the Minerva Project, for example, are dedicated to three learning objectives: critical thinking, creative thinking, and effective communication. But more generally, the question remains largely unanswered of what integrates or connects the many individual training or learning opportunities that continue to emerge as traditional educational experiences become unbundled and new ones emerge. 

Over the last quarter-century, particularly, as the import of data and information has increased exponentially, another poet’s words likewise seem telling: "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" T.S. Eliot’s juxtaposition is at the heart of various models differentiating data, information, knowledge, wisdom and, often, values. Many commentators see these overlapping categories related in the shape of pyramids or ladders. For instance, Maria Popova, the creative muse behind brainpickings.com, adopts the ladder metaphor and asserts that story is the form that binds and bridges the rungs of the ladder and enables the ascent from information to knowledge to wisdom. Whatever the specific formulation, the underlying priority entails how to re-make a culture and design of education that is becoming increasingly individualized and diffused.   

Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, recently made what she called, 'The Case for College'. Her words spoke eloquently to the life-changing potential of a college education. College, she says, opens opportunities and, more, opens minds and worlds in ways that stretch students to become different people. The experience teaches them to know more, but it also helps them frequently to find a passion they had never imagined that then serves as the basis of a vocation or profession to which they can devote their lives. Ultimately, Faust observed, students develop new ways of approaching the world, through the power of learning, analyzing, changing to adapt to what they’ve come to understand.

I believe in all these outcomes and, as an educator, have been inspired by them myself over the years as both student and teacher. Yet I also recognize how all these changes and impacts can potentially emerge from a range of learning opportunities and situations other than college. To be sure, the intensive and structured collegiate experience, particularly occurring when it typically does in young persons’ lives and development, can be special. But to privilege college as the singular institutional and experiential means to such ends is to ignore the abundant and rapidly evolving potential of other learning settings and situations.

Amidst this evolution of different educational opportunities, the question remains who else can or should provide comparable facilitation or guidance that draws together learning. In professional settings, there are increasingly multiple answers, from more traditional degree or executive programs, independent offerings and 'passion arenas' (in Deloitte’s phrase) to industry and sectoral training opportunities and corporate talent development.  The coherence across individual lessons in these different settings varies enormously, of course, and the challenge remains in many settings to harness the centrifugal energy of learning across more and more new, digitally-driven opportunities. 

That struggle casts light on a more fundamental transformation taking place in education: rather than shifting or spreading authority among institutions today, today’s transformation potentially involves the democratization of learning such that anyone can be a guide or enabler. Twenty years ago, Peter Senge wrote about the 'learning organization' could 'tap people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels…where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together.' Learning in such terms becomes a lifelong process and everyday, collective practice in which groups of people learn from each other.

While perhaps sounding a bit utopian, the call for more robust and ongoing learning has been put into practice by some of our most admired, creative and successful organizations, like Pixar and Google. Moreover, the authority of this learning rests broadly in the organization itself, as a collection of individuals willing to reflect on their shared values and stake a thoroughgoing commitment to their ongoing individual and collective development. Among the great changes that have taken place in corporate learning initiatives recently is a broadening of the skills and values being engaged. Besides 'hard' and technical skills, many others, from authenticity and mindfulness to critical and creative thinking are re-making educational opportunities. By supporting employees’ desire not just to be better workers but better human beings, organizations signal and cultivate a learning community in which those individuals can learn with each other more freely. 

To build such a community requires imaginative and committed leadership.  Like learning itself, however, the leadership of organizations is less top-down and more democratized – and about enabling the continual learning of others. Leading the future of learning requires that we take time to reflect on and understand more explicitly which values and priorities underpin and connect the plethora of unbundled and individualized opportunities that surround us. Rather than mastering specific sets of skills or areas of topical knowledge, education increasingly is a continuing journey marked by learning more and more deeply about one’s own capabilities while also serving and communicating with others. Today’s revolution isn’t about having a talent that digital and other learning opportunities help us to improve so much as being a talent who can grow in an organization and a community with others who are growing with us.

David Slocum

Faculty Director
Berlin School of Creative Leadership
  +49 (0)30 39 88 96 99